Azmi Yafi: Korean heritage and Middle East knowledge combine at Cheil

mediaME speaks to Azmi Yafi, the Chief Operating Officer of global marketing services group Cheil MENA. Azmi shares his views about digital media and how it is changing the role of advertising agencies, budget allocation, levels of creativity in the Middle East, the impact of the global economic recession on international agency networks and more.

Q. Kindly introduce yourself and your company?

I’m the Chief Operating Officer for Cheil MENA, which is part of a global marketing services group that is creatively driven. Its focus is on ideas that solve marketing problems and move consumers emotionally, move brand metrics, and move products. As a full service agency it offers clients actionable and innovative capabilities across advertising, media, digital communications, events and display production. It was established in 1973 and is head quartered in Seoul with 53 offices in 28 countries. Our clients are a mix of local and international brands for whom we work with under one profit centre and delivering ideas based on local insights and trends. They include Hankook, DEWA, Dubai Economic Department, Samsung and Dunkin Donuts and Emirates Islamic Bank.

Q. How does your South Korean heritage influence your local operation and the creative output?

In 1960, Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries. In 2011 it is the 11th largest economy in the world and its growth is testament to a mentality in Korea for resilience, commitment and making the impossible possible. Put simply, it’s a philosophy called “Tu:hon” and we have embraced this in the Middle East. For example, across the regional network we have implemented a simple initiative that promises to initiate a brief in 24 hours. This is not a global mandate passed down to the network from our global headquarters in Seoul, but it does reflect our local insights on market dynamics with our Korean heritage for hard work. If we want advertising and marketing to have increased influence at a C-level, we have to start thinking and operating on their terms; delivering a service that is profitable and efficient as much as it is creative and inspiring.

Q. Digital media is changing the role of advertising agencies. As an integrated agency, how do you handle the blurring line between advertising and media?

I don’t believe that a line exists anymore because communication channels are working hand in hand. For example, a consumer may be searching, via his mobile phone, whilst watching branded content on TV. So the need to become integrated especially considering the multiple touch points along the path to purchase is imperative. Hence, Cheil has one profit centre which ensures the idea comes first; not the medium and margin that can be made.

Q. Do your clients allocate significant budgets to digital media?

Sometimes a campaign will revolve around engagement and earned media – hence the idea is naturally suited to digital and/ or mobile media. Other times, our planning and research highlights that traditional channels are better suited for the promotion of a particular product so it is dependent on the brief. But as a rule digital always has a part to play. We make sure it does, but on the whole the majority of media spend it still allocated to TV, print and radio. We are okay with that because for Cheil – the focus is on the idea and ensuring it has the intended outcome. The channel is just the tool.

Q. What’s your view regarding the level of creativity in the Middle East in comparison with other regions?

We frequently use case studies and examples from within our network to inspire colleagues and educate clients because only by looking to the ‘fringe’ markets can you begin to understand and prepare for the ‘next big thing’; and therefore create ideas that break convention and achieve cut-through. It just needs advertisers and marketers to be brave!

Q. Tell us about the impact of the global economic recession on international agency networks, and if you feel the Middle East advertising market is still suffering from recession or not.

It’s not so much being part of an international network, but more to do with having a diversified portfolio of international and local clients, which Cheil does. For instance, the automotive and financial industries have seen declines in spend, but FMCG and retail have maintained their growth. With Cheil’s network based out of South Korea, the recession has not really affected our base and therefore we have managed to continue to enjoy healthy growth across the network. What we are noticing here in the Middle East ad market, is that advertisers are still continuing to spend, albeit not at the same levels prior to the economic downturn, but are now seeking to ensure any expenditure is delivering a strong return on investment.

Q. What’s next for Cheil in the Middle East? Are you expanding into other markets and introducing new services or divisions?

We are still a relatively new entity in the Middle East market and as such we are looking to consolidate our operations in UAE, KSA and Jordan before looking at other expansions. We will look to grow our network organically as and when the opportunity presents itself.